Geneva – In light of the disruption of a large part of the Constitution's provisions protecting rights and freedoms, violations against journalistic work in Tunisia have soared since President Kais Saied announced his exceptional measures on 25 July 2021, Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor and Journalists for Human Rights said in a report released Tuesday.
Entitled "Reporting under the Weight of Fear," the report stated that journalists and local and Arab media outlets in Tunisia were subjected to multiple types of attacks, including repression, arbitrary detention, harassment, and restrictive decisions.
The exceptional measures provided a fertile ground for the authorities to expand their violations against journalistic work, especially after they replaced constitutional texts in the form of presidential orders that have a legislative nature. These measures unsoundly allow presidential orders to prevail over the texts of the Constitution, relying on Article 80 of the 2014 Tunisian Constitution.
The report pointed out that since 25 July 2021, the executive authority in Tunisia has issued orders that clearly affect the independence and freedom of journalistic work. It seems to impose illegal censorship on the media and subject it to the disguised guardianship of the executive authorities.
The report highlighted the role of Presidential Decree No. 117/2021 in legitimizing restrictive measures against the press. The decree stipulates in Article 5 of its second chapter that "regulating the press, media, and publishing" is one of the legislative tasks of the exceptional presidential orders. This unacceptably opened the door wide to restricting freedom of the press and criminalizing the circulation of information. This was translated in decrees and orders issued by the Tunisian presidency and the government after that, such as Circular No. 14 of 2022 on combating illegal speculation, and Circular No. 19 on the government’s communication work rules, and both included significant restrictions on the freedom of publication and circulation of information.
The report documented the arrest of 14 journalists by Tunisian security services since the announcement of the exceptional measures until April 2022.
The attacks that targeted the press sector in Tunisia included smear campaigns targeting a number of female journalists through intimidation, psychological intimidation, and threats to prevent them from practicing their professional activity normally. Wejdan Bou Abdallah, editor-in-chief of Tunigate, said: "The public environment in Tunisia today is unfortunately not suitable for practicing journalistic work. Journalists have started practicing a form of self-censorship for fear of being subjected to official harassment or prosecution, especially after some of them had already been arrested."
The report indicated that executive and security authorities in Tunisia became more aggressive with journalists and the media after the presidential measures. Only one day after the announcement of these measures, the Tunisian security forces stormed the Al-Jazeera channel office, closed it without presenting a judicial order, expelled all its employees, and confiscated their keys.
The report warned that violations against journalists reached an unprecedented level on 8 April 2022, when the military court in Tunis sentenced journalist Amer Ayyad to four months in prison on charges related to freedom of opinion and expression, the first time that a journalist was tried before a military court.
Regarding journalists being physically assaulted by security personnel, the report cited a Tunisian journalist, Zina Majri, who said: “During the celebration of the anniversary of the revolution on 14 January […] As I was photographing on Mohammed V Street near Habib Bourguiba Street, where the main event was being held, [I saw] a group of Ennahda supporters, no more than 30 people, surrounded by a large number of security forces personnel. They started beating the participants in the event. So, I opened a Facebook Live to document the event. One of the security personnel surprised me by forcibly taking my phone and telling me that I was filming illegally, even though I am a journalist, a member of the SNJT, and have the protection granted to journalists.”
"After that, they returned my phone to me and asked me not to take pictures, but I started filming again to practice my duty. Six security men accompanied by a policewoman came and beat me and took me to a military vehicle. They transferred me to a security center in the capital."
The report called the Tunisian authorities to open an independent investigation into all attacks against journalists and press entities including physical and verbal assaults, arbitrary detention, and storming of press institutions; bring those responsible to justice to ensure that they do not go unpunished; and stop issuing restrictive decisions against journalistic work.
The report also suggested that Tunisian President Kais Saied should respect the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the press; stop the campaign of incitement against journalists, bloggers, and press institutions; and abide by the Tunisian constitution and national laws regulating journalistic work, and the international charters and instruments that Tunisia has ratified that are 2related to the protection of journalists' rights.